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The Strong-Willed Slavs Were Hard to Convert and to Conquer

Tuesday 25 July 2017 at 02:56 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 20, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            I think it’s accurate to say that there is a strong Czech-Catholic ethnicity in East Bernard. Some might object and say, ‘I’m a Slovak,’ or ‘I’m a Bohemian,’ but, then until the early 20th Century Czechs were called “Bohemians.” As I have searched for the origin and history of my Wendish (Sorbian) ethnicity, I’ve learned a lot about my fellow Slavs, the Czechs and the Poles. Where do we come from? Do the Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and Wends (Sorbs) trace themselves back to the same “mother tribe”?

            Since so many of my readers are Czech-American, I thought they might be interested in my pursuit of ethnic origins. There are many different Slavic peoples in the world, and all are related, but some are more closely related than others. For instance, Czechs, Poles, Wends (Sorbs), Kaschubians, Silesians, Slovaks, and Pomeranians are all WEST Slavic, making them first cousins. All you Bohemians out there, I’m your first cousin! Russians are EAST Slavic, making them second or third cousins. And, by the way, the Slovenes are SOUTH Slavic, also second or third cousins, so you can’t claim close kin to Melania Trump who is Slovenian.

            In ancient times, there were a huge number of Slavic tribes, many or most of whom were nomads, like my ancestors, the Wends. They came into central Europe and they fought the Germanic and Celtic tribes who occupied the territory, -- this was before they were called Czechs, Poles, Wends, etc. By 700 or 800 A.D., most of the Slavic groups were still pagans, and many were nature worshipers. It seems that the Polish tribes were the first to be called by their present name, Poles. As some of the Slavic groups were Christianized, they assimilated with the Germanic and Celtic occupants of the area. It seems all the Slavic peoples were strong-willed and feisty, -- to the extent that it was hard for Germanic people to either conquer them or convert them to Christianity.

            The Roman Catholic Church eventually realized its priests, bishops, etc., would have to learn the various versions of the Slavic language in order to effectively reach and teach the Slavs. When the Wends migrated to Germany around 300 A.D., they were still pagan, and the Germanic tribes felt it necessary to convert them to Catholicism, -- this was a long, long time before Martin Luther was born, so there was no Lutheran church. Considering how stubborn we Wends were, conquest and conversion were not easy for the Germans to accomplish.

            The German Bishop and his missionaries apparently had a hard time learning to speak and write the Wendish language accurately, as the very first recorded Wendish sentence would indicate (according to Gerald Stone in Slav Outposts in Central European History). The German Catholic missionaries taught the Wends to sing, in Wendish, “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”). What the Wends actually sang in Wendish because of the similarity of the words in translation was: “The alder is standing in the thicket.” The alder was a sacred tree to the Wends, and used in pagan worship. Some believe they sang this version of the Kyrie eleison mockingly; others believe it was a natural mistake of translation. To be sure, the Wends were not easy to convert.

            Although the Russians were second or third cousins to the Czechs, Poles, and Wends, Christian missionaries had a similar problem with the Slavic peoples of Russia, --- probably an even more difficult problem. Even closer to modern times, with the enslavement of the serfs and the illiteracy of the peasants, it was very difficult to communicate the Christian gospel to them and to eliminate the pagan superstitions which they so strongly held to. The Russian Orthodox Church did not seem to have the ability to educate the illiterate serfs and peasants, as did the Roman Catholic Church. So it was not uncommon to have Russian Orthodox monks and “Holy Men,” like Rasputin, who were only semi-literate, and yet became spiritual advisors and teachers to many people.

            In the case of Rasputin (who was killed in 1916), he even had a powerful influence on the Czar and especially, the Czarina, said by many historians to be a very sinister influence. Some of the uneducated “Holy Men” apparently pulled nature worship and other remnants of paganism into their thinking. It seems to me, in my reading of history, that the Czechs, Poles, and Wends became solid, reliable Christians in a shorter length of time than the East Slavic people. But when you talk about 300, 600, 800 A.D., there aren’t enough primary sources to substantiate that fact.

            Another book I am reading that is helpful in Slavic research, The Early Slavs by P. M. Barford,  is very difficult to read, but is very carefully researched, so as I learn more about the Czechs, Slovaks, Moravians, Poles, I’ll pass the information on to you. To be sure, over the years, I have given you an overdose of Wendish lore.

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Ray Spitzenberger has retired after serving as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, for 28 years, teaching in high school for 9 years and at Wharton County Junior College for 22.

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